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Tours of Northeast towns with culture in mind

Living History

There are plenty of museums and historical sights in and around New Paltz, but once you settle in to Mohonk Mountain House, you’ll feel like you’ve gone back in time yourself

LThe Mohonk Mountain House

The secret of Mohonk Mountain House is something no event planner or interior designer could ever achieve. It’s based on the age of the place, which was built between 1869 and 1910. It’s sparked by the Quaker sensibilities of the Smiley family who built it and who, generations later, still own it. The dress code is definitely a throwback to an earlier era; so too, it can be argued, is the unfailing hospitality of the staff.

Jack Finney’s novel Time and Again suggested that time travel could be achieved by putting yourself so thoroughly in the milieu of your destination that you easily slip into the past. This is what happens at Mohonk. You don’t notice it at first. But once you finish the long drive up the switchback road and surrender your car at the entrance, the pace begins to slow. There’s no TV set in your room. Your connection with the outside world evaporates quickly.

You’re becoming part of history. If it were possible to view from afar the guests at Mohonk—if you could see yourself even after only a day on the premises—you’d see someone moving a little more slowly, someone thus able to enjoy the splendors of nature. You’d see a living museum.

Unlike your visit to other museums in the area—and the Hudson Valley has its share—here you’re not allowed to be a mere observer. Nor would you want to be. If sheer relaxation isn’t pleasant enough, there are always activities on tap. An open-air pavilion accommodates ice skating, although the pavilion itself, built of stone hewn from the construction of the rink itself, is distracting with its 39-foot-tall, 10-foot-wide fireplace and palatial feel.

The real palace, however, is the Mountain House itself. The 251-guest room structure glides an eighth of a mile along a ridge overlooking a lake carved into a glacial tumble of stone. The building grew in a variety of architectural eccentricities, with stone and wood and unexpected turrets, paneled in dark Victorian restraint. Just to walk from one end of the house to the other is to round a dizzying array of corners and discover comfortable armchairs seemingly forgotten in comfortable corners.

When brothers Albert and Alfred Smiley discovered this outpost in the Catskill’s Shawangunk Mountains in 1869, they also established a land-preservation process that ensures un- or at least under-spoiled surroundings. The property itself has been declared a National Historic Landmark, and its 2,200 acres adjoin the 6,400-acre Mohonk Preserve.

Tying in the Mohonk experience with the art of Hudson River School painters, Brendan Gill wrote in the June 1989 Architectural Digest that the artists “painted what they saw, but also something more than what they saw, and this ‘more’—this sublime—was what the Smileys sought to foster at Mohonk Mountain House.” He went on to wonder whether present-day visitors encounter the sublime while playing tennis and golf, hiking, swimming and horseback riding. They know, he suggests, “they are happy at Mohonk and somehow better able to relax there than at other, more contemporary-seeming places. To relax is permissible in our time; to be in touch with the sublime is not.”

Exactly. That’s why time-travel is necessary. You’ll find yourself slipping into it if you avoid the golf and settle into one of those armchairs.

You’ll pass Huguenot Street on your way through New Paltz. It’s worth stopping to explore. Another natural museum, it’s the oldest continuously inhabited street in America. Dutch vernacular architecture is featured, which means an unspectacular-looking array of houses that turn out to be spectacular in their quiet perseverance.

Built from the 1680s through early 1700s, the houses remain private residences, open to inspection anytime from the outside and for tours from May through October. Look for more information at the Visitor Center at the DuBois Fort on Huguenot Street.

In the nearby town of High Falls, you can explore the old Delaware & Hudson Canal. Start at the D&H Canal Museum, which offers a trail map to take you by five stone locks in varying conditions. The town itself is worth exploring, too.

Heading east, toward the Hudson itself, more architectural splendor awaits. The Payne Mansion in Esopus is a 40-room estate built in 1905 to resemble a Mediterranean palazzo, complete with an open central courtyard. Originally the home of oil magnate Oliver Hazard Payne, it’s now owned by the Marist Brothers.

Just across the river is the magnificent Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, a 50-room Italian Renaissance-style designed by McKim, Mead & White and built (at a cost of $660,000) from 1895 to 1898. It’s probably the most spectacular of the Hudson River estates, and is now owned by the National Park Service, which makes it available for tours.

The fabulously wealthy got lonely from time to time, and tended to build these estates fairly close together. That’s why it’s a short hop to Springwood, also in Hyde Park, the birthplace of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It started as a two-story clapboard house; by the time Franklin’s father acquired it, a wing and tower had been added as well as stables and a carriage house. Roosevelt senior went all out, however, and converted it into an Italianate 17-room villa.

In 1915, his widow transformed the place into a 35-room Georgian Revival mansion now owned by the National Park Service, which has maintained and preserved the structure even through a fire 20 years ago.

Make sure you get your touring out of the way before you get to Mohonk, however. Once you arrive on the mountaintop, wild horses won’t be able to pry you away. Not that you’ll see any. It’s more likely that you’ll catch sight of the tame horses that are available for pleasant jaunts around the Mohonk grounds.

—B.A. Nilsson

The Dr. Seuss Sculpture Garden

Words, Words, Words

Culture aplenty awaits you in and around Northampton—and don’t forget the bookstores

Blame it on the children. Blame it on the job. OK, blame it on laziness and poor time management. Whatever the reason, these past few years I haven’t read as many books as I used to.

Now I’m not going to let my reading slide forever, but in the meantime, because something deep inside me obviously is yearning for more time with books, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon: My craving for downtime spent browsing bookstores has increased about tenfold—as has the pleasure I receive when I actually get that time.

Which brings me to Northampton, Mass., a small, lively, people-friendly city so interesting and so close to the Capital Region that I can’t imagine a decent excuse for not making an occasional day trip there. Among its many attractions, Northampton seems to have a new or used bookstore on nearly every downtown block, and it isn’t unusual to duck down a side street and encounter another one you’ve never noticed before. My personal favorite is Raven Used Books (4 Old South St.), which offers a treasure of used and rare books worthy of hours of browsing (for anyone out there who has hours). Among the new bookstores worth setting aside time for are Broadside Bookshop (247 Main St.) and Booklink (in Thorne’s Marketplace, 150 Main St.). Maybe it’s the fact that all of these stores seem to prominently display books of merit rather than mass-market bestsellers, or maybe it’s just that Northampton’s salon-on-every-street-corner intellectual aura makes you feel almost as if the author is in the room with you, but bookstore browsing here is a sensory delight on a par with that in, say, Harvard Square.

A Puritan settlement originally purchased from the Nonotuck Indians in 1654, Northampton’s early claims to fame include Jonathan Edwards’ tenure at the Congregational Church pulpit for 23 years in the 1700s, Shays Rebellion (over land taxes) in 1789, and Calvin Coolidge’s stint as mayor in 1910-11 (for those of you a little shaky in history, Coolidge became president in 1923). For many years Northampton was a market center for the surrounding farm communities; it also developed as a thriving and forward-thinking educational community (Smith College remains in integral part of the city’s fabric), and quite a number of authors have made the area home at one time or another (Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson and, more recently, Richard Wilbur and Tracy Kidder, among others).

In the early 1980s, Northampton underwent a redefining transformation from a sleepy old New England town to the hip, cosmopolitan center of art, culture and cutting-edge commerce that it is today. I lived there in 1985, and the change was well under way: Cheap downtown properties had been bought up both by artists and by entrepreneurs, laying the foundation for the eclectic mix of trendy retail shops and bohemian cafés and art spaces that remain in place today. Even if you’ve never lived there, you’ve probably heard of nationally known music venues like the Iron Horse Music Hall and Pearl Street Nightclub. And if you have lived or visited, you’ve undoubtedly sampled the bustling downtown retail district, which includes Thorne’s Marketplace, a one-time department store that was converted in the ’80s into a multi-floor indoor marketplace with dozens of shops and restaurants, as well as the many stores, restaurants and cafés (and don’t forget those bookstores) that line Main Street and adjacent side streets. To see and feel the bohemian nature of city life here, all you have to do is walk around downtown for a half-hour or so and watch the people. One indication of the city’s evolution in the past two decades: The old nickname of “Hamp” gradually gave way to “Noho.”

Though it is an easy day trip (approximately an hour and 40 minutes’ driving time), we decided recently to make a weekend out of it and stay at the Hotel Northampton (36 King St., 413-584-9455), a charming colonial-revival inn smack-dab in the middle of town. While not overly posh or full or bells and whistles (the children were disappointed that it has no indoor pool), the hotel is tasteful and comfortable, and the restaurant and tavern within serve excellent food at reasonable prices—which we took advantage of a couple of times when we’d had enough of the frigid outdoors. On the night we did venture outside for dinner, we made a return trip to Spoleto (50 Main St.), a longtime fave for its creative Mediterranean-influenced fare and energetic atmosphere. If the bustle of the place doesn’t bother you, put your name in on one of those busy weekend evenings when they take no reservations, find out how long the wait will be, and continue your shopping.

Downtown Northampton and the surrounding neighborhoods fairly seethe with history; there’s also a museum called Historic Northampton, which consists of three contiguous historic houses, all on their original sites. But we had other things on our agenda—or should I say, the kids’ agenda. Since it opened in November, we’ve been wanting to check out the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art (125 West Bay Road, Amherst), and we were not disappointed; although one of the main galleries was between installations, the kids enjoyed the museum’s ample, well-designed space and the core collection of work by Carle, as well as the fascinating exhibition detailing the stages in the creation of Robert Ingpen’s art for Charise Neugebauer’s Halloween Circus at the Graveyard Lawn.

Another museum side trip was to nearby Springfield, an oft-overlooked city at the core of the state’s industrial hub along the Connecticut River. We decided to visit the museums at the Quadrangle (220 State St.), which is, indeed, a quadrangle of buildings including the public library and several museum buildings. We toured the Springfield Science Museum, the highlights of which included the dinosaur hall and the African hall, especially the exhibits on African cultures. The kids loved it, which I can’t say for the Museum of Fine Arts, but that’s because they’re kids. That museum is a bit of a find, considering one doesn’t hear much about it two mountain ranges away here in the Capital Region. American art is the specialty, and familiar names include Winslow Homer, Frederic Church and Georgia O’Keeffe; there are also paintings by Monet, Degas, Pisarro and Gauguin. There’s another art museum and a local-history museum in the quadrangle, which we did not explore, but the kids also loved the statues in the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden; yes, most of your favorites are represented there.

Being that this was a culture trip, we debated also driving down to Hartford—another half-hour or so from Springfield—to visit two more excellent museums, the Wadsworth Atheneum (the country’s oldest public art museum, and an excellent one) and the Science Center of Connecticut, a wonderful combination of hands-on science and play areas and a live animal center featuring critters that were rescued, were unwanted exotic pets, or were confiscated as illegal pets. But ultimately, we decided to devote the rest of our time to Northampton. You know, so many bookstores, so little time. . .

—Stephen Leon

Stanley Theater

By the Old Canal

Even a brief trip to former frontier town Utica uncovers a city with a rich history

"Utica is the story of immigration,” states Jim Chanatry, bed-and-breakfast co-proprietor and Utica historian of sorts. He’s speaking of the waves of immigrants who have made their way to Utica seeking a hometown. Many came during the building of the Erie Canal, an event inextricably linked to Utica’s history, and in the late ’90s a few other groups, namely Bosnians, Russians and Vietnamese moved to the city.

Utica, according to Chanatry, had its modest beginnings as a frontier town created when the first leg of the Erie Canal was built between Rome and Utica. The Erie Canal brought water to the city (which due to its location on a flat plain could not easily access the Mohawk River as a power source), so industries that utilized steam engines sprung up, mainly textile mills.

So, a visit to Utica, approximately 90 miles to our west, can be quite the history lesson if you go searching. Even though I had only been there a couple of times previously—and only made it to the very bottom of Genesee Street, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, at that—to hang out in the lively coffeehouse Virgo Bat & Leo Phrog, I was intrigued by the architecture around the downtown area. It seemed at the time that this was a city with a long and varied past. Just a couple of miles up the hill, the large homes that lined Genesee Street were remarkably similar to those that sit on Madison Avenue, from New Scotland Avenue to its terminus at Western: large, sprawling, mansion-esque affairs with turretlike extensions and wraparound porches. And similarly, these houses contained a large number of doctor’s and dentist’s offices, with a chiropractor and day-care center thrown in every so often. Many, too, are still private residences. The difference, it struck me, was these structures were nearly immaculate (that, and the sidewalks facing them were all shoveled). Pride in ownership makes a huge difference.

Which brings us to another of Chanatry’s points: “Utica is the story of small business.” This story is told in structures all over the city—structures that still stand due to care and preservation. Those who settle here dig in and set up shops throughout the area. The most recent immigrants have padded Utica’s population up to around 69,000—a figure about half that of 40 years ago—and help the city bear the brunt of a shrinking industry base and redirect its future.

Chanatry and Betty Shimo run the Iris Stonehouse, a bed-and-breakfast located a couple of miles up the hill from Utica’s downtown (amid the aforementioned towering homes), which is a good place to begin a historic tour of Utica. It helps that Chanatry enjoys the subject, and helps even more that you can down a hefty plate of orange pancakes and eggs with herbs during a lively discussion.

In the nearly 3 miles between the Stonehouse and the bottom of the hill, where Virgo Bat sits (at 100 Genesee St. in case you’re wondering), are a wealth of sights and attractions to help you in your quest to better know Utica. First stop is the Oneida County Historical Society Museum and Library (1608 Genesee St.), housed in a Greek Revival building with towering columns. Exhibits in the main gallery explain the period of local history via paintings, local-business memorabilia, household items of prominent people, tools, scale models and the like.

The Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute (310 Genesee St.) , about a mile farther down the hill, is an internationally acclaimed fine-arts center, with three divisions: Museum of Art, Performing Arts and School of Art. The Museum’s prominent art collection is housed in a modern Philip Johnson-designed building and, connected via an education wing, a historic 1850 Italianate mansion. Some of the artists whose work is part of the museum’s permanent exhibit include Jackson Pollack, Georgia O’Keeffe, Thomas Cole—including his Voyage of Life series of paintings—and Salvador Dali. The museum is a must-see when in town. They also show recently released films in their auditorium, so if you’re lucky you can catch a flick.

A mere few blocks down is the Stanley Performing Arts Center (259 Genesee St.), a “Mexican baroque” styled structure designed by renowned theater architect Thomas Lamb. The theater, which opened in 1928, was designed as a movie house, with approximately 3,000 seats, for the Mastbaum chain of theaters (Stanley was one of the Mastbaum brothers). In 1974, the Central New York Community Arts Council, Inc. bought the building, put in more than $4.5 million, and restored it to its original luster. The exterior is terra cotta and tiled mosaic, and a star-spangled ceiling and a multitude of cherubs and baroque gold-leaf reside inside. The Stanley hosts the Utica Symphony, the Mohawk Valley Ballet, artists performing as part of the Munson Williams Proctor Institute Great Artists Series and the Broadway Theatre League, which lures touring Broadway shows.

Continuing to the bottom of Genesee Street, which is lined with monuments and historic structures that in themselves are worthy of a look, in what I would call a warehouse district, sits Union Station—a gem of a building and the last of the big stations from the golden age of railroading. It was built in 1914, the third such structure to stand on that spot, by New York City architects Allen H. Stem and Alfred Fellheimer, who designed many a celebrated train station—including their city’s Grand Central Terminal and Detroit’s Michigan Central Station. In 1978, Oneida County, which owns Union Station, began to restore the historic structure, lining it with marble and equipping it with heated benches and featuring intricately hand-painted rosettes on the ceiling. The marble floors under the huge vaulted ceiling were designed in the same style as Grand Central’s and there’s a popular legend that eight of the station’s huge marble columns came from the “old” Grand Central terminal. The station now houses a barber shop, newsstand, gift shop, bar, coffee vendor and some sort of DMV outpost. Amtrak, intercity and city buses, and bus companies such as Greyhound and Adirondack Trailways can also be found. Union Station is also the headquarters of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, a four-hour ride (round trip), to Old Forge, where the train rests for five hours while its passengers hit the streets to do what they wish.

If you have a couple extra hours, check out the F.X. Matt Brewing Company—makers of Utica Club and Saranac—now marking a century in the biz. Take a tour of their seven-story brewhouse and visit their 1888 Tavern for a tasting. They ask that you make advance reservations in the winter (800-765-6288).

There are many other historical sites to visit in the warmer weather: Erie Canal Village and Fort Stanwix in nearby Rome, and the Oriskany Battlefield in Oriskany are a couple. And non-historic sites include Utica’s inner-city ski slope, miles of cross-country ski trails and the Utica Zoo (you can snowshoe to visit the animals), which, by the way, is located off a parkway featuring monuments of war heroes at each intersection. So there’s history everywhere, I suppose.

—Kate Sipher

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